Which Disney Movie Is the Most Medieval?



Looking at a selection of films that present a global Middle Ages, a chronologically flexible period from 500–1500 CE.


By Dr. Larisa Grollemond
Assistant Curator, Manuscripts Department
J. Paul Getty Museum

By Dr. Bryan C. Keene
Adjunct Professor of Art History
Pepperdine University


Introduction

We didn’t know we’d grow up to be medievalists and curators of manuscripts when we saw our first Disney films, but their portrayal of castles, cathedrals, and chivalric ideals―all stereotypical elements of the Middle Ages―were spellbinding.

In the opening credits of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty, we saw our first illuminated manuscripts (albeit imaginary and animated). These introductions included jeweled covers called treasure bindings, ornate calligraphy, and vibrant miniatures with lavish borders.

We recently went deep into Disney+ to revisit some childhood favorites, as well as a few others to figure out which movies are the most “medieval.”

Beginning in the 1920s with Silly Symphony and Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney has been deeply interested in exploring the European Middle Ages in all its permutations. Disney’s Middle Ages takes on tales and events set roughly between 500-1500, and remixes them for today’s audiences.

Disney’s Middle Ages is also deeply tied to the tradition of 19th-century fairy tales, most notably those of the Brothers Grimm (first published in 1812). These “Once upon a time” stories adopt “medieval” European characters, creatures, and the overall aesthetic: princesses wearing flowing gowns, knights in shining armor, castles that dominate idyllic landscapes, dragons and fairies, witches and wizards, forbidden forests, and all the rest. If you happened to catch Onward earlier this year, you’ll notice the classic Disney combination of magic and fantasy with a touch of historical accuracy.

However, as curators, we work to nuance and deepen audiences’ understanding and appreciation of the breadth of medieval art in a global context. While Disney’s vision of the Middle Ages spans continents and features compelling characters including Mulan, Merida, Moana, and Jasmine, the company has rightly been called out for cultural stereotyping.

As we plunged through Disney+, we wanted to look at a selection of films that present a global Middle Ages, a chronologically flexible period from 500–1500 that encompasses sites and stories from England to China and from an anachronistic “Arabia” to the temporally ambiguous world of the Pacific islands.

The 10 Most Medieval Disney Animated Films

We followed some rules. We only looked at animated films (no sequels) and based our ranking on five categories:

  1. Historical references
  2. Evidence of source material for the plot and cues in the dialogue
  3. Art, architecture, and music from the period
  4. Authentic costumes
  5. Mythical or fantasy elements, supernatural beings, and magic seen in medieval stories and mythology

10. ‘Snow White’ (1937)

Uta, Statue im Naumburger Dom, 2007, Linsengericht. / Creative Commons

A surprisingly dark (casual assassination attempt, anyone?) film that’s pretty true to the Brothers Grimm original, with misogyny straight out of 1937.

Plot: The story begins with the turning of book pages that look a little medieval, but the rest is pure Grimm.

History: No medieval history here! The story is based on the 19th-century version by the Brothers Grimm.

Aesthetic: Beyond the queen’s Gothic castle, the denizens of the magical forest don’t seem too interested in the arts.

Costumes: The visage of the queen is based on a real medieval person: Uta von Ballenstedt (about 1000-1046), whose likeness can be seen in a 13th-century sculpture in Nuremberg Cathedral (shown above).

Fantasy: The evil queen is of course a witch, and she has “medieval” tomes in her library such as Disguises (convenient!) written in a style that evokes Gothic manuscripts. We can’t say there were many poisoned apples and princesses in glass coffins hanging around waiting for princes during the Middle Ages, though.

Overall ranking: 🏰

9. ‘Black Cauldron’ (1985)

Every character is somehow the worst character in this extremely bizarre attempt at medieval worlding.

Plot: A young boy who dreams of becoming a knight must hide an oracular pig… This visionary swine holds the secret to the location of a magic cooking pot that could unleash a terrible evil upon the legendary world of Prydain. The Fair Folk protect the piglet from the devilish Horned King. The movie is an adaptation of The Chronicles of Prydain, a series written in the 1960s by Lloyd Alexander, based on Welsh mythology.

History: Nope, nothing. Not really. We kept thinking about J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, especially the far more entertaining 1977 and 1978 animated versions of those epic adventures. The creature Gurgi sounds like Gollum, but wait, we’re in the history section. We’ve got nothing.

Aesthetic: Swords and shields, balladeers and witches, princesses, and demons just don’t cut it as authentically medieval in this film. The interlaced lettering of the title and similar designs in the opening and end credits feel the most like medieval calligraphy, as in the Book of Kells.

Costumes: Maybe some reference to the armor of early Greenlanders, Icelanders, or those on the British Isles?

Fantasy: Dragons, fairies, an army of the dead, goblins, a spooky Forbidden Forest, a wild man-beast, and a sword that turns out to be magical (obviously)… The story has plenty of medieval fantasy elements, but their combination is just so weird.

Overall ranking: 🏰½

8. ‘Aladdin’ (1992)

Oil Lamp, early 13th century, Persian. Bronze, 5 7/8 in. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.81.256.14. Gift of Michael and Linda Keston

Set anywhere from the 4th to the 18th century, Disney’s culturally problematic retelling of a tale about a guy who gets the girl thanks to magical intervention.

Plot: Based on a story called Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, added in the 18th century to the collection of Arabic folktales known as the One Thousand and One Nights (dating as early as the 9th century).

History: When does Aladdin actually take place? One clue might come from the Genie, who remarks that Aladdin’s “fez and vest combo” is “much too 3rd century.” More fairytale than history, this film combines elements from a huge variety of geographies and time periods from Muslim Spain to Arabia to the wider Middle East to India, problematically lumping them all into the same category.

Aesthetic: While the palace gardens are reminiscent of the Alhambra Palace (located in Granada, Spain), the sultan’s giant elephant-head-shaped throne and the Taj-Mahal-esque domes of the palace exterior all evoke the art of India. The magic lamp itself bears a passing resemblance to oil lamps made in Central Asia.

Costumes: Maybe that fez and vest combo is much too 3rd century? Plenty of turbans, dhoti, and shalwar, and exposed skin, but Princess Jasmine’s outfit is more I Dream of Jeannie than anything else.

Fantasy: Sure, there are the usual animal sidekicks, a flying carpet, and Genie’s magical powers, but many of the smaller details―the harem women, sword swallower, fire walker, snake charmer, scimitars, the costuming and accents, and the bazaar, all set in the fictional Agrabah, conjure a “city of mystery” that is really an Orientalist fantasy.

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰

7. ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000)

The Adoration of Manco Capac, completed in 1616, post-conquest Peruvian. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XIII 16 (83.MP.159), fol. 19. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

The Inca sovereign, but make him a llama. Hear us out on this one…

Plot: “Long ago, somewhere deep in the jungle…” a self-centered emperor rules a mountainous kingdom but is transformed into a llama by a sorceress-vizier. This story is about him, Kuzco. Although the film is arguably meant to evoke the Inca Empire, the plot doesn’t connect strongly to history.

History: The Inca ruled the Andean world, which included parts of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile, from about the 1100s until the Spanish conquest of 1572. Machu Pichu is their most famous architectural accomplishment. As a llama, the film’s protagonist embodies the most important animal to the Inca. The original concept for a film called Kingdom of the Sun was apparently going to center on a character called Manco―named after the ancestral founder of the Inca Empire―and would address Andean creation myths. That story would have been way more period-appropriate.

Aesthetic: Nearly every one of the architectural spaces in the palace evokes the art of the Inca and neighboring communities. Consider this gold with silver inlay mask. The checkered floor is reminiscent of a feather tunic that featured in the Getty exhibition Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas. Even the hokey restaurant and domestic scenes include drinking vessels that seem inspired by Chimú and Moche ceramics. But the music doesn’t tick any boxes for us. In fact, the line “an enigma and a mystery, in Mesoamerican history…” from the song “Perfect World” nearly made us stop the film entirely because the Andes are in South America. But it’s Disney and this story is pure fiction.

Costumes: The animators emphasized patterned tunics (woven or incorporating feathers), as well as jewelry made of gold, jade, and turquoise. For a more in-depth look at Inca fashion, the Getty has an early illustrated history of the Inca that provides biographies of each of the emperors, complete with portraits.

Fantasy: We’re willing to think about the potions for shapeshifting in relation to South American myths, although these more often involve jaguar-human transformations.

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰½

6b. ‘Moana’ (2016)

Neck ornament (Heitiki), New Zealand. Nephrite, 6 1/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Heber R. Bishop, 1902 (02.18.315)

The line where the sky meets the sea calls a courageous medieval voyager across the Pacific Ocean.

Plot: The story centers on a young leader’s quest to find a new island to inhabit due to climate and ecological changes threatening her home.

History: An archaeological look at the film suggests a date range of between 1000-1500, the period when Pacific voyagers began actively sailing to Central and Eastern Polynesia after the so-called “Long Pause” consisting of centuries of traveling within the major Western island network (closest to Australia and New Guinea). The word “Moana” means “ocean” and the island that she seeks, Te Fiti, could be based on the Polynesian word “Tafiti,” meaning a faraway place.

Aesthetic: The movie includes stunning visualizations of Polynesian art, architecture, and culture: Maori amulets, tattooing, and stone/wood carving among them. However, the film presents a vision rife with cultural appropriation and cinematic colonization (read Smithsonian geographer Doug Herman’s review for more).

Costumes: As with the aesthetic, some aspects of the costuming pass as Polynesian (primarily the patterns and materials).

Fantasy: The demigod Maui exists as a heroic figure across Polynesia, often accompanied by his companion, the goddess Hina (left out of the Disney version).

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰🏰

Note: As a protagonist, Moana ranks with Mulan as our favorite Disney medieval heroines―they are brilliant strategists, compelling leaders, and they resist harmful histories of heterosexism.

6a. ‘Mulan’ (1998)

Mulan from Gathering Gems of Beauty, Qing Dynasty, identified as He Dazi. Album leaf, ink and colors on silk. National Palace Museum, Taipei

Secretly taking her father’s place in the Chinese imperial army, Mulan is Disney’s most formidable medieval heroine.

Plot: The story of Hua Mulan, who disguises herself as a soldier in her father’s stead, can be read in the 31-couplet Ballad of Mulan. Given the brevity of the text, Disney took liberties to expand the content, often veering into cultural parody.

History: The tale dates to the 5th/6th century during the Northern Wei period of Chinese history.

Aesthetic: The Great Wall of China, seen in the movie, was built over centuries beginning as early as the 7th century BCE―so its inclusion is historically appropriate. In the film, we see jade mirrors, carved limestone ancestral tombstones (the tombstones also include names of the film’s animators in Chinese), sculptures of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, and individuals playing the war strategy game xiàngqí.

Costumes: Mulan’s gown appears similar to the one in the painting above, and the inclusion of jade jewelry is also period-appropriate.

Fantasy: Cringey. Some of the ancestors and guardian figures are cast as Grant Wood’s American Gothic and another has an abacus, decisions that reveal cultural insensitivity and the pan-Asian problem with this film.

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰🏰

5. ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1996)

LEFT: Gargoyle, Notre-Dame, about 1870, French. Albumen silver print, 8 3/4 × 5 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XP.492.12. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program; CENTER: Paris, Notre-Dame, 1880s, Léopold Louis Mercier. Albumen silver print, 10 3/8 × 8 1/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XP.492.14. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program; RIGHT: Paris, Notre-Dame, 1880s, Léopold Louis Mercier. Albumen silver print, 10 3/8 × 8 1/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XP.492.15. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Inspired by a 19th-century vision of medieval Paris, but with plenty of visual texture that evokes places and art of the city of lights, this story is about true medieval outcasts.

Plot: Events taking place around the church of Notre-Dame de Paris are filtered through the lens of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, on which the story is based. Overall the film is pretty true to Hugo’s dark neomedieval tale of murder, social outcasts, sin, and damnation, but with fewer dead protagonists by the end and a gentler Quasimodo (meaning “half-formed,” aka Hunchback).

History: Set in late 15th-century Paris, there are plenty of medieval places, attitudes, and hierarchy. The Feast of Fools (January 6), around which the tale turns, was observed in France by clergy and laypeople alike before the 16th century.

Aesthetic: The true star of this movie is the cathedral of Notre-Dame itself―we get animated gargoyles, exterior sculptures, stained glass rose windows, the famous interior Virgin and Child, and sculpture fragments in the belltower. For eagle-eyed viewers, there’s a brief view of the medieval Palace of Justice and the Sainte Chapelle, King Louis IX’s Gothic masterpiece.

The music here uses plenty of Latin prayers recited in medieval Masses―Frollo’s “Hellfire” song (in which he confesses to desiring the beautiful Esmerelda) contains several: “Confiteor Deo Omnipotenti (I confess to God almighty) // Beatae Mariae semper Virgini (To blessed Mary ever Virgin).”

Costumes: At the festival, the crowd is dressed in generic tunics, evoking the stereotypical idea of the medieval lower classes, but let’s just say that Esmerelda’s outfits, in particular, wouldn’t have passed medieval muster.

Fantasy: Gargoyles and goat sidekicks aside, this movie remains pretty firmly planted in reality. The ideas of divine retribution and faith were central to the lives of medieval Christians.

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰🏰½

4. ‘Brave’ (2012)

Callanish standing stones, 2000, Marta Gutowska, Creative Commons

A skilled archer and rider must mend her bond with her mother, who has been transformed into a bear and risks remaining that way forever.

Plot: Merida does not want to be forced into marriage, especially to the dolts from the neighboring clans, and she is fed up with the princess-prep regimen from her mother, Queen Elinor. A woodland witch gives Merida a curse that transforms the queen into a bear. Major problem? Her father (King Fergus) has been feuding with a seemingly wild bear for years and thus goes on a hunt after… his wife.

History: Online sources tell us the film is set in 10th-century Scotland, which seems about right from some of the aesthetics. But the story is an original work by Brenda Chapman, who is one of the best storytellers and world-makers on our list. Her inspirations come from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

Aesthetic: Runic inscriptions, petroglyphs, and a stonehenge connect this fantasy medieval world with art and architecture that one can still explore today in Scotland, England, and elsewhere. The film also features a chess set, reminiscent of the famous chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, Scotland (from around 1150 to 1200). The wood carving evocation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam is, alas, not medieval (but it was made by a witch, so…).

Costumes: We love the outfits and the jewelry, which draws from the visual aesthetic that developed from trade and travel between Celtic and Scandinavian cultures.

Fantasy: The Will O’ the Wisps, the witch, and curses that transform people into bears are pretty incredible imaginings for the medieval past.

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰🏰🏰

3. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959)

Saint George and the Dragon (detail), about 1450–1455, Master of Guillebert de Mets. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, 7 5/8 × 5 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 2, fol. 18v. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Sure, it’s a fairytale, but it feels pretty medieval to us.

Plot: Sleeping Beauty is based on a tale that finds its early origins in a 14th-century romance text, filtered through the 17th-century French author Charles Perrault and, of course, the Brothers Grimm.

History: OK, we’ll admit that Sleeping Beauty doesn’t have much to do with any real medieval history, but it is one of the most detailed and developed visual impressions of the European Gothic that Disney produced. Elements of arranged marriage as diplomacy, the royal hierarchy, courtly procession and ceremony, and Maleficent’s goons engaging in castle warfare to stop Prince Philip’s escape certainly have parallels in medieval history. After all, as Philip reminds us, “Now father, you’re living in the past. This is the 14th century!”

Aesthetic: There’s at least one inclusion of real medieval art: the famous Unicorn Tapestries (which appear behind the lectern in the end credits). There are lots of imaginary Gothic creations that are based on medieval artistic traditions: the treasure binding of the storybook that contains the tale (and inside, its illuminated pages with elaborately decorated borders), the heraldry decorating the royal reception room, the lute played by the court minstrel, and the gargoyles of Maleficent’s ruined Gothic castle. Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is part of the musical score, which we love despite not being medieval.

Costumes: Aurora’s hourglass, off-the-shoulder number is straight out of the 1950s, yet elements of Philip’s armor and weaponry seem more medieval.

Fantasy: Maleficent’s dragon form is a classic that’s true to the western medieval perception of dragons as symbols of the devil (after all, she calls on “all the powers of Hell” before transforming). We can’t really speak to the cursed spindle, fairies, or enchanted sleep, though.

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰🏰🏰½

2. ‘The Sword in the Stone’ (1963)

King Mark Taking an Oath before King Arthur (detail), about 1320–1340, French. Tempera colors, gold paint, and silver and gold leaf on parchment, 15 1/2 × 11 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 5 (83.MR.175), fol. 366. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Before becoming King Arthur, he was just a boy called Wart who learned everything about the world from the wizard Merlin and the owl Archimedes.

Plot: In this telling, the centuries-old tale of King Arthur is a coming-of-age story concerned with the theme of progress (knowledge, technology, geography, etc).

History: The legendary British ruler is said to have lived between the 5th and 6th centuries. In the film, Merlin references the London Times (founded 1785), saying it “won’t be out for another twelve-hundred years.” Doing the math sets the film around 585, so that sorta adds up. But the aesthetic evokes the High Middle Ages (about 1000–1300).

Aesthetic: Disney’s story of the legendary sword in the stone begins with a ballad: “This was a Dark Age, without law and without order. Men lived in fear of one another, for the strong preyed upon the weak.” Ugh. There never was a “Dark Age” but rather an Illuminated Age of remarkable manuscript production. And Merlin wants viewers to know that the film is set during the Middle Ages, with phrases that include “one big medieval mess,” “a medieval muddle,” and charming Latin-esque spells such as “Aquarius, aquaticus, aqualitus!” Notwithstanding this insistence of periodization, the turreted castle together with a robust culture of book production, a fully-formed system of chivalry, and many of the magico-religious elements date to much later in history. The blending of legend, history, and myth was a central element of medieval storytelling, as glimpsed through the pages of illuminated manuscripts. In the image above, the illuminator outfitted the 5th/6th-century Arthur in 14th-century kingly attire.

Costumes: There’s not much here. The tunics and armor in the film are not early medieval period specific.

Fantasy: Merlin and the various forms of magic or fantasy (alchemical recipes, herbal remedies, and the animals of the bestiary) are definitely medieval.

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰🏰🏰1/2

1. ‘Robin Hood’ (1973)

Missal (detail), before 1381, German. Pierpont Morgan Library, Dept. of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, MS M.892.3 fol. 001r

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5Qph47c2uE&feature=youtu.be

Medieval history, both real and legendary, all set to some catchy tunes—what more could you ask for?

Plot: Robin Hood is one of the most enduring and famous figures from medieval English folklore. He has origins in many different medieval texts, with the earliest references coming from the late-14th-century poem Piers Plowman. Narratives detailing his prowess as an archer, his rivalry with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and his friendship with the steadfast Little John exist from the 15th and 16th centuries. The Robin Hood legend grew and changed from there, gaining Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, and the connection to King Richard.

History: While the existence of Robin Hood is debatable, the history of the rivalry between Prince John and his brother King Richard of England is right out of the 12th century. While Richard, known as “the Lionheart,” was on the Third Crusade (1189-1192), he left control of England in the hands of several trusted advisors, though they proved unpopular. John positioned himself as an alternative king, of sorts. In Richard’s absence, John built his own court and government (you’ll recall the Phony King of England song from the film: “While bonny good King Richard leads the great crusade he’s on//We’ll all have to slave away//For that good-for-nothin’ John”). Their mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, advocated on John’s behalf when relations between the two brothers broke down. Neither of the brothers had a snake as an advisor, as far as we know, though Hiss’s ability to hypnotize may be a subtle reference to the idea of weak leaders being overly controlled by their councilors.

Aesthetic: The story begins with an opening book with certain medieval qualities: Alan-a-dale, the rooster troubadour, is certainly evocative of the bard of the Middle Ages (he’s even named after the minstrel of Robin’s band of outlaws, the Merry Men, in the medieval sources), there are stone castle and church interiors, and of course, there’s archery.

Costumes: There isn’t much in this category, but we’ll point out Prince John’s elaborate processional carriage, Maid Marian’s veil, and King Richard’s Crusader’s uniform with the red cross as gestures toward the medieval.

Fantasy: The characteristics of the film’s talking animals correspond closely with the animal descriptions in a popular medieval text known as the bestiary. Noble lions, tricky foxes, sneaky snakes, and dishonest wolves all appear in both the movie and the medieval source. A fox seems like a natural choice for the character of Robin, since medieval legends of Reynard, a famously cunning fox, were some of the most widely-read in the European Middle Ages.

Overall ranking: 🏰🏰🏰🏰🏰

Honorable Mentions

Don’t see your favorite Disney film on the list? Probably because it’s not at all medieval, but we do have some others in the “honorable mentions” category. There has been a lot of online conversation about whether or not The Lion King (1994) is based on the 14th-century Epic of Sundiata Keita of Mali or on the 16th-century writings of William Shakespeare (specifically Hamlet). We would prefer the African source material for the African story, connections made clearer in the CGI version of 2019 (the soundtrack references Mansa Musa, Sundiata’s descendent). There’s Pocahontas (1995), a whitewashed version of history that takes place in colonial Virginia in the early 17th century. The castle and its stained glass in Beauty and the Beast (1991) may feel medieval at first, but this “tale as old as time” has a blend of Baroque and Rococo flair more plausibly set during the late 18th or early 19th century (a dating clarified by the 2017 live-action film). Perhaps taking place around the same time is Tangled (2010), although those outfits could pass at a Renaissance Faire.

And for the record, the only thing medieval about Frozen is the passing reference in a song lyric to Joan of Arc. It doesn’t bother us anyway.


Originally published by The Iris, 05.28.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Comments

comments